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My Ántonia was written by Willa Cather in 1918, and is centered around a Bohemian immigrant girl named Ántonia Shirmerda. The story takes place after a time of transformation in the United States, specifically the American West. The story is told from Jim Burden’s point of view, a recently orphaned boy going to live with his grandparents. Jim and Ántonia first meet each other as young children when they are both traveling by train to Nebraska, which they will soon call home.
After Jim arrives at his grandparent’s farm, he is introduced to Ántonia and the entire Shirmerda family, who just happen to be his new and nearest neighbors. Instantly best friends, the rest is history for Jim and Ántonia. The rest of the novel describes Ántonia from child to motherhood, as Jim Burden recalls his dearest friend. Throughout the novel, we are introduced to several strong, independent female characters as Cather beautifully portrays women that defy stereotypical gender roles.
In this novel, women take control of families, earn money, call the shots, and even do fieldwork with the men. Women grow up to be successful figures in business, and others as homemakers. My Ántonia rejects all traditional standards of femininity and argues for alternatives.
Cather did not conform Ántonia’s character to typical female roles for this time period. The main character, Ántonia, is characterized with beautiful strength and a hard work ethic. Following the tragic suicide of her father, Ántonia was forced to become an independent and hard-working woman at a very young age.
Although she was very bright, Ántonia did not attend school with the other children because of working alongside her brother, Ambrosch, in the fields at harvest time. When asked about school, Ántonia said, “I ain’t got time to learn. I can work like men now. My mother can’t say anymore how Ambrosch does all and nobody helps him. I can work as much as him. School is all right for little boys. I help make this land one good farm” (Cather 97). Ántonia saw no need to go to school like most girls, for she could work the farmland as well as any man. Ántonia could not only outwork her brothers but also older and more experienced men. Some women, such as Mrs. Burden, believed that young ladies like Ántonia should work indoors and help their mothers with household chores. Mrs. Burden said, “Heavy field work spoil that girl. She’ll lose all her nice ways and get rough ones” (Cather 99). Mrs. Burden often tried to coax Ántonia to help cook or clean “like a lady should do.” She went as far as to get her a job working in the house for Mrs. Harling. Ántonia knows all along that Mrs. Burden does not like that she works in the fields like a man, but it does not bother her in the least. Antonia exclaims, “Oh, better I like to work out of doors than in a house! … I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man” (Cather 110). This extremely influential character represents a positive compromise with feminist ideals. Ántonia grows up to be equally independent as she is strong, all while still living as a wife and mother.
Willa Cather uses Lena Lingered as another example of women not conforming to typical gender roles. Jim Burden describes Lena as “something wild” that has always “lived on the prairie” because he had never seen her under a roof before. (Cather 130) Lena speaks openly about never wanting to be married on two different occasions. During the time period in which this novel was set, most all women were married and had already begun to bear children by age twenty. Lena said, “I don’t want to marry Nick, or any other man… I’ve seen a good deal of married life and I don’t care for it” (Cather 128). Several years later, when the idea of marriage was revisited, Lena still argued that she did not wish to be wed. Lena said “Well, it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband… They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it and be accountable to nobody” (Cather 218). All women glorified marriage during this time period, and you were looked down upon if you did not marry or have children. The character of Lena Lingered defies all traditional standards of femininity. Lena reverses the gender roles of men and women in today’s society. In Lena’s younger years, she had a tendency to “eye” several of the town boys and string them along. Lena was even accused of “making Ole Benson lose the little sense he had” (Cather 130). Mrs. Shimerda called Lena out on this once by saying, “Maybe you lose a steer and learn not to make something with your eyes at married men” (Cather 133). This never bothered Lena of course, for other people to talk about her this way. Perhaps Cather used Lena Lingered’s character to try to turn the tables around on men and to try to make a statement for all women in the new frontier.
Willa Cather’s feminist approach to this particular period of history casts a new light on the roles that women played in the settlement of the western prairies in America. As the reader, we learn a lot of information about all of the female characters, but never much about their husbands. Cather seems to do this on purpose, possibly in an attempt to help the reader understand the importance of these women in the founding of a new land. Ántonia Shirmerda’s character proves that a woman can do a “man’s job” just as well as he, if not even better. Lena Lingered’s character reverses the gender roles and proves that a woman does not need a man to be happy nor successful. Willa Cather rejects all traditional standards of femininity and fights for alternatives throughout the entire plot of My Ántonia. Malala Yousafzai once said, “Empowered women empower women.” I believe that she and Willa Cather would have been great friends.
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